Among many existing restaurant guides, the Michelin Guide is considered as the most representative guide. Foodies travel the globe collecting meals at Michelin-starred restaurants like they’re souvenirs. So, how a food guide can be so powerful worldwide in recent decades?
Get to know “the little red book”
According to the Michelin website, the Michelin Guide was originally intended to encourage motorists to explore France, and naturally, buy more Michelin tires. In 1926, they started to award their first stars for fine dining establishments, initially marking them only with a single star. Five years later, a three stars’ system was introduced:
One Star: “A Very Good Restaurant in its Category”
Two Stars: “Excellent Cooking, Worth a Detour”
Three Stars: “Exceptional Cuisine, Worth a Special Journey”
And in 1936, five criteria for the starred rankings were published:
- Quality of the ingredients used
- Mastery of flavor and cooking techniques
- The personality of the chef as revealed through the cuisine
- Value for the cost of the meal
- Consistency of the food and culinary standards over time
During the rest of the 20th century, the MICHELIN Guide has continued to evolve and became best-sellers without equals thanks to its unique approach with more than 30 million MICHELIN Guide have been sold worldwide since. The guide now rates over 30,000 establishments in over 30 territories across three continents. Michelin stars are most commonly awarded to restaurants in Europe, but the guide also covers select cities in Asia, Brazil, and the United States.
A special point from this guide is consumer feedback doesn’t factor into Michelin’s star ratings. Only official Michelin inspectors determine whether restaurants receive stars and the exact scoring system is kept a secret. Most Michelin inspectors are former chefs or have some other culinary background. Statistically, they eat a minimum of 275 restaurant meals each year, travel three weeks a month and dine out twice per day.
The challenges when it’s accepting private money and sponsorships
In the beginning, the Michelin Guide was developed independently and received no funding from any other party. However, Michelin company needs to pay fully for their inspectors’ meals. As a result, in 2011, a report in the Financial Times claimed Michelin was losing more than $24 million USD a year on the guides and was projected to lose $30 million USD a year by 2015.
Therefore, from 2016, Michelin branched out into other aspects of the restaurant industry by acquiring online reservation platforms such as BookaTable and launching branded food and beverage events that turn their own profits, with a foundation based on the authority and faithfulness of its guides. Under this more profit-generating model, it would make sense to accepting corporate sponsors and tourism board-backed commissions.
In 2016, Korean Tourism Organization signed the contract with the value of approximately $1.8 million USD to bring the Seoul guide to the country. Meanwhile, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly pledged around $4.4 million USD) in financial support to Michelin for five years, beginning with the first Bangkok guide in 2017 with the hope that the guide will help boost food tourism in the country. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) also had a contract with Robert Parker Wine Advocate, a marketing and wine rating company, to provide indirect support to the guide and helped promote the 2017 Michelin Guide Singapore Street Food Festival and the Local Chef Showcases dinner series, with chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants.
There was no official report about the cost of commissioning a Michelin guide and it varies depending on the location and scope of the deal. Numbers are generally difficult to come by since tourism boards, corporate sponsors, and Michelin itself are generally unwilling or unable to talk about their agreements.
However, the financial relationship between high-profile restaurant honors such as Michelin and local tourism boards is perhaps more common than people realize. Tourism Australia paid $600,000 to host the 2017 ceremony for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in Melbourne, Australia. Tourism boards in Louisiana and Chicago, the U.S have also used big money to lure Top Chef and the James Beard Awards to their cities.
So, is the Guide worth the Price?
Among many rating systems and guides, earning a Michelin star (or two, or three) is still a coveted seal of approval for restaurants worldwide for decades. In Europe, a Michelin star signifies that a restaurant has set itself apart from the pack. Restaurants that have received Michelin stars have reported an increase in business. French chef Joël Robuchon, who holds the title of being awarded the most Michelin stars in the world, told Food & Wine, “With one Michelin star, you get about 20% more business. Two stars, you do about 40% more business, and with three stars, you’ll do about 100% more business.”
Another example is Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a renowned hawker stall that’s known as one of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants has expanded internationally to locations in Melbourne and Bangkok since receiving its one-star rating in 2016.
Moreover, many destinations had seen the benefit to promote their culinary tourism with the Michelin guide and its reputation around the world. In a joint press release with Michelin announcing the Bangkok guide in 2017, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) stated “The aim is to allow food lovers to explore Thailand’s culinary scene, raise the profile of Thai restaurants and boost the economy”. TAT further projected that the guide would “boost overall food spending per head of tourists in Thailand by 10 percent.” Raising the profile of its food industry to “quality” world travelers has been a key marketing effort for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. People from the United States and England, where the Michelin guide is more of a household name, also happen to be among the top spenders on food in Thailand, according to Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Ministry.
In Singapore, representative of Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said that receiving a Michelin guide has “cemented” Singapore as a regional food hub and the tourism board hopes it will also “encourage continuous culinary innovation and excellence amongst Singapore stakeholders, raising the overall quality of Singapore’s dining scene and encouraging the growth of gastro-tourism.”
However, besides the prestige and the enormous benefits of receiving a Michelin star & appearing on the guide and its star ratings, restaurants and destinations are also faced with challenges such as the pressure and expectations that come with having a Michelin star or the argument about the actual economic impact. Especially when the global food scene expands and continuously grows, the Michelin Guide must adapt to keep pace with many other competitors like World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Yelp, TripAdvisor or even Instagram influencers.
At the end of the day, the destinations should focus on developing their right gastronomy landscape first to get the attention, then invest in gaining a better insight into how tourists search and use information related to culinary tourism, whether they get the information from word-of-mouth, via online, or other media. Knowing the traveler insights & the right source of information could be utilized to maximize promotion and strengthen the destination decision when considering the investment on Michelin guide or any other rating system.